Former Rhode Island Secretary of Housing Josh Saal ’09 submitted his letter of resignation Wednesday, Jan. 11 only a year after stepping into the position. The resignation comes after months of criticism from housing advocates and politicians alike over Saal’s perceived inaction on major housing issues.
On Jan. 18, Gov. Dan McKee announced that Stefan Pryor, Rhode Island’s former secretary of commerce, will fill the role of housing secretary effective Feb. 6.
“Housing is essential to the health of our community as well as our economy,” Pryor said in a statement from McKee’s office. “It’s important for us to come together around our common mission, bring together an effective housing organization and take key steps that will enable us to advance collectively.”
Saal’s hurdles in office
McKee announced Saal’s initial appointment as the state’s deputy secretary of commerce for housing in December 2021. In June 2022, McKee consolidated the state’s efforts to address housing issues into a single department, which was signed into existence in the 2022 legislative session and officially began operations Jan. 1.
While in office, Saal submitted two reports after their required deadlines. An organizational report outlining the recommended “functions and structure” of the new housing department was filed two weeks after its November deadline but received an extension from the office of the State House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, D-Warwick. Over a month later, Saal submitted an integrated housing report a month after its Dec. 31 deadline. The report was missing a number of key statistics outlining the state’s ongoing housing crisis and did not receive an extension.
“I am disappointed by the lack of progress that was made under Secretary Saal’s leadership and the inadequate reports he recently submitted to the legislature,” Shekarchi wrote in a statement following Saal’s resignation.
Terri Wright, organizer of the tenant and homeowners association at Direct Action for Rights and Equality, echoed these frustrations. “I know the city must be exhausted, neighbors are exhausted, the unsheltered are exhausted. We are all exhausted, and for what?” she said.
In December, Saal also struggled to begin operations at a warming center at the Cranston Street Armory, The Boston Globe reported. He also faced pushback from the Rhode Island Coalition to End Homelessness after asking for “real time information” about homelessness, including “the locations of the 80 encampments” known to the coalition. The coalition declined to release specific addresses due to safety and privacy concerns of those living in the encampments, WPRI reported..
In his resignation letter, Saal wrote that the housing system’s “decentralized structure” inhibited his ability to build out the new housing department.
Brenda Clement, director of HousingWorks RI at Roger Williams University, said that not all of the new department’s issues could be blamed on Saal. She described the agency as “a house still being built,” adding that figuring out the state’s role in addressing housing problems and building infrastructure should have been a priority before the department’s operations began.
Saal “was and is very well-intentioned, interested and concerned about these issues,” Clement said, “but wasn’t necessarily given all the tools and the resources he needed to do the job appropriately.”
But Wright said that Saal barely did his job, calling him “nonexistent” during his tenure.
Saal declined to respond to a request for comment.
In the days following Saal’s resignation, McKee announced that Pryor will fill the vacant position of housing secretary.
“Stefan Pryor has a demonstrated history of getting innovative development deals accomplished,” Shekarchi wrote in a statement emailed to The Herald. In April, Pryor aided in developing the $220 million plan to renovate Providence’s long-vacant Superman building, WPRI previously reported.
“I am confident his strong skill set and deep knowledge of our state will enable him to hit the ground running.”
McKee also appointed Hannah Moore, who previously served as the state’s assistant secretary of commerce, as assistant secretary of housing. Moore will also serve as the executive director of the Housing Resources Commission, which aims to develop “statewide housing plans, programs and systems,” according to a statement from McKee’s office.
In the months ahead, Pryor and Moore have been tasked with building up the new housing department, creating a comprehensive plan for where the department is headed and bringing housing advocates and other community stakeholders together, advocates and experts told The Herald.
McKee’s recently proposed budget for fiscal year 2024 also allocates $2.7 million to pay for an additional 21 full-time employees at the department.
Wright urged Pryor and McKee to “fast track” moves to develop more shelters and add hotel beds. “I am hoping that Stefan Pryor is going to show up and do everything that we need him to (do) in this moment,” she said. Wright noted that hundreds of people remain unhoused with an additional unknown number living “couch to couch.”
Juan Espinoza, communications and development manager for the Rhode Island Coalition to End Homelessness, was positive about the state of the housing department, although he said he would like to see more collaboration between his group and the new department leadership in the future.
“I’m hoping that (Pryor’s) experience will help guide this work in a good direction,” Espinoza said. “We’re hopeful that the Secretary will weigh in and really work with the providers and boots on the ground and the people that know these constituents to make a difference.”
“We’re hopeful that maybe an influx of new leadership can help address some of the strategic concerns that we had that were not addressed,” he said. “Secretary Pryor and his team have a lot on their plate right now, but so do (we) as providers who are working with this community day to day.”
Future of department
What comes next is unclear. Prior to Saal’s departure, the department issued a solicitation for consultancy services for the development of a “Comprehensive Housing Plan,” the deadline for which is Feb. 2. Clement said she thinks such a plan could provide the foundation for the department.
“You’ve got to know what you need,” said Clement, who noted that HousingWorks RI will be part of a team bidding on the proposal. The report could then be followed by a plan for implementation and metrics for accountability moving forward, she explained.
Clement added that it’s also important that a state plan involves feedback from everyone involved in the housing space, such as zoning and planning officials, nonprofit and for-profit developers, service providers for the unhoused and more. The new department will need to take steps in order to secure financial sustainability as well, she said.
“I’ve seen this before,” Clement said. “The legislature comes in or a governor comes in and starts off great, but then as budgets get tight or money gets tight on the state level, things start to shrivel pretty quickly.”
With the large amount of federal funding available, now is the time to address structural issues regarding homelessness and housing insecurity, Clement added. “Shame on us if we ruin this opportunity.”
Jacob Smollen is a Metro editor covering city and state politics and co-editor of the Bruno Brief. He is a junior from Philadelphia studying International and Public Affairs.